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Ventura County Plugs Hole in Voting System With Ink

To comply with a federal order to end bias against Latinos, it's replacing punch cards with pens.

March 25, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County election officials are replacing their decades-old punch-card voting system in time for the June 6 primary election.

After more than 30 years of voting with punch cards, most county voters will now mark their choices with ink. Those who have trouble seeing the ballots or using the pens will be able to vote on computer touch screens.

County officials say their new systems will serve Spanish-speaking voters better and ensure that those who are disabled can cast secret ballots.

The county has used punch-card technology for more than three decades, but officials agreed in 2004 to replace the system under a federal consent decree.

The U.S. Department of Justice had accused the county of discriminating against Latinos, who make up about a third of the population, by failing to employ sufficient numbers of bilingual poll workers or to provide adequate Spanish-language voting materials.

The settlement required the county to print bilingual ballots. But Gene Browning, the county's assistant registrar of voters, said the old punch cards could not be printed easily in two languages.

The new system, which cost $6 million, was paid for using federal and state funds. It was manufactured by Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems. And like the punch-card system, it uses paper.

Although other counties have opted to switch entirely to computer touch screens, Browning said county voters made it clear that they still wanted a paper-based system.

"Whenever they would hear about counties going totally electronic, the reaction was: 'We need to have paper,' " he said.

In the new system, voters will feed their completed ballots into optical scanners that will instantly check for errors. The scanners will kick back incomplete ballots or ones filled out incorrectly, with too many candidates selected.

Once approved, results will be recorded on memory cards, which will later be uploaded into a centralized elections computer in Ventura. A percentage of the paper ballots also will be hand-counted to verify results, Browning said.

At each polling place, voters who are visually impaired or have difficulty using a pen will be able to cast secret ballots using computer touch screens. The machines will be equipped with headphones for people to hear the choices on the ballot.

California passed a law in 2004 requiring electronic ballot machines to also use some form of paper verification. Counties have until June 2006 to comply.

To meet the deadline, Riverside County in January agreed to spend $14.2 million to replace its 6-year-old touch-screen voting machines with newer models that provide paper confirmation.

By never abandoning paper-based voting, Ventura County showed its fiscal prudence, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

"Counties that go all electronic typically spend three times more to purchase new equipment," Alexander said.

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